Congress of the people; A grassroots route to peace
On the 19th of May 2017, the first all-women, joint Palestinian and Israeli peace congress was held in Tel Aviv. These negotiations took place against the backdrop of renewed conflict in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The event, which hosted roughly 100 Israeli women and 100 Palestinian women, was organised by Congress of the People, an organisation which facilitates public peace negotiations between ordinary Palestinians and Israelis. The organisation is led by an Israeli academic, Dr Sapir Handelman, who has received the Peter Becker Award in Peace & Conflict Research. Prior to this Women’s Congress, Handelman and his team have organised 33 Israeli-Palestinian public negotiating congresses in many different locations.
The project began in Universities, mainly in the US and Canada. It has since progressed to Israel and the West Bank itself. On the 17th of this same month, the largest congress so far took place in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. With over 2000 participants and 100 negotiating panels, it was a major success. Amazingly almost all of the 33 congresses have managed to agree on a resolution. Handelman wants to attempt to solve the issue from the bottom up. He believes change will only come if the people truly want it, and has noted the crucial role women will play in this.
(Israeli and Palestinian women hold peace talks on the streets of Tel Aviv, May 19, 2017. i24NEWS)
In almost all forms of conflict it is invariably the ordinary people who suffer the most and likewise, these are the people who will benefit the most from peace. The reality of a drawn-out conflict is that people, on both sides, are tired. They are tired of fear, of violence and of losing loved ones. The willingness that was shown and the lengths taken by the people to partake in these congresses, demonstrates this clearly.
While these congresses usually begin with topics of common ground, like the need for better education and the will for peace. They move on to trust building measures which is followed by peace agreements. The peace agreements cover topics such as a “solution”, the city of Jerusalem, borders and refugees. These congresses do often get rather heated which is natural in such a sensitive context. However, to date, no relationships have been permanently damaged and the events have been permeated by an air of tolerance and respect. Each of the congresses have managed to come to a mutual conclusion of some sort and these resolutions for the first 22 congresses can be found on the Minds of Peace website. Each new congress develops on the ideas and agreements made in the last congress.
In an interview with i21 News, a Palestinian woman named Samah from the West Bank, had this to say;
Sitting around a table of Israeli and Palestinian women, Samah affirmed that both sides were tired of the conflict.
“Enough of this conflict, she said. “We have to put an end to it. We want to live in peace in a normal way and, beyond all that, we want to live like human beings. It’s the most important thing.”
The point of these congresses is far more than an apparent show of positive cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a chance for people from all aspects of society and politically differing perspectives, to come together to debate, discuss, and negotiate options for jump-starting an effective peace process. On top of this, it is providing a brilliant educational opportunity for both parties involved. In any division in society, it can be hard for people to understand the narrative and experience of the “other”. Empathy can be tough, especially in a situation as divisive as this one. It is always educational to sit down and meet with the supposed “other side”. Regardless of the outcome, each negotiation event provides a chance for a deeper understanding of each party involved. Those present can put faces to names and this is crucial if peace is to be achieved. People coming together like this to share stories of mutual suffering, hopes and desires is an effective education, deradicalization and will pave the way for a unified voice for peace.
(Public peace negotiations at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv (2017). Organized by Minds of Peace (Congress of People)
Ultimately the goal of these congresses is to establish a major Israeli-Palestinian Negotiating Congress, a large scale peace-making institution which will use its unified voice to motivate and lobby both sides leaders to further the process and end the stagnation. Many people now see this module as a viable road to a peaceful solution in Israel and Palestine. A similar congressional module was used successfully in South Africa in 1955. In a middle eastern context, this women’s conference is made even more unique and important. The inclusion of women will undoubtedly have an interesting effect on this process and perhaps it is exactly what is needed for peace to finally be achieved. In the words of Yosefa, an Israeli participant in the discussions and a member of the activist group Women Wage Peace,
“Men had 69 years to reach an agreement and they failed,” she said. “It’s our time.”
Resolutions for the first 22 congresses
Interview, comments and Information from i21News: http://www.i24news.tv/en/news/israel/society/145695-170519-israeli-and-palestinian-women-hold-peace-talks-on-the-streets-of-tel-aviv